MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Kyle Abraham speaks volumes through movement

By Christina Campodonico

Kyle Abraham is officially a dance genius. A recipient of a 2013 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, Abraham and his company, Kyle Abraham/ Abraham.In.Motion, have toured the world, presenting a unique blend of hip-hop, jazz and contemporary dance that soothes the eye, even as it rattles one’s conscience.

“Abraham’s dancers are as strong as they are soft,” writes The New Yorker’s Joan Acocella, “—as threatening, sometimes, as they are threatened. You can almost feel their bodies against you, feel their flesh, and how it could be wounded.”

Kyle Abraham’s choreography carries political overtones, but he considers himself an artist first
Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Abraham, whose work spins and slashes through issues of race, urban violence, civil rights and incarceration, calls his style a “postmodern gumbo” — an approach he arrived at by combining his classical dance training from college with the social dance skills of his youth.

“I started dancing in the mid-’90s. I was a huge rave kid,” says Abraham, who grew up under the influence of Pittsburgh’s 1970s hip-hop scene and now serves on the dance faculty at UCLA. “So when I started studying dance and started studying Martha Graham technique and José Limón and Merce Cunningham — all these dance pioneers — the movements that I started exploring when making dance, I think had a lot of their voices and texture and techniques
in the way in which I was moving. … So I think, as a result, I kind of refer to it as a ‘gumbo’ because I think all of these styles and techniques have been ruminating in my body.”

Even with a “genius grant” under his belt, Abraham is not content to sit back, but is constantly tinkering — thinking of how he can improve and innovate his dance practice.

“We should always try to be challenging ourselves. And there’s never a reason to be resting and thinking that whatever you’ve done is the greatest thing that
will ever be,” says Abraham.  “I look at some of the stuff I did before — I’m like, ‘Oh, garbage.’”

Abraham is reticent to talk about works he’s choreographed even within the last few years — “The Quiet Dance” from 2011 and “Absent Matter” from 2015 will make their California premieres at The Broad Stage this weekend — but that’s probably because he’s enamored with his current work, “Dearest Home.” It’s a piece on “love, longing and loss,” he says, that he developed through a residency and workshops about love letter writing at Dartmouth College and recently showcased in Western Canada.

“I’m really inspired by people’s stories. I like collecting stories. I like talking to people and getting to know more about them,” says Abraham, discussing his creative process. “When I’m on a tour, I love getting to meet people in different communities and just sitting and talking with them and hearing their stories. …

“I like to meet a stranger — maybe I’ll meet a couple — and I just really want to know those mundane questions of when did they meet,” continues Abraham. “How long have they been together? I want to know what their first date was like. All those things — I’m really interested in knowing from total strangers so that they’re no longer strangers.”

Abraham’s curiosity about people traces its roots back to his college days at the State University of New York at Purchase, where he studied anthropology alongside dance and trained under lauded choreographer  and fellow “genius grant” recipient Bill T. Jones.

Like Jones, Abraham is hesitant to draw a direct line between his personal identity as a gay black man and the political themes of his works. (2014’s “The Gettin,’” also on this weekend’s program, takes inspiration from the seminal album “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” recorded to mark the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and released in response to sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, that brought major media attention to the growing Civil Rights Movement.)

But Abraham does allow that the personal is political.

“I’m black. I’m gay. I mean, that’s political,” he says. “It just is. And in a lot of ways that’s unfortunate. But I’m not going to take that route. I’m just going to own it as power. I think knowing who you are and knowing your truth is a big part of that power.”

In other words, motion alone may be force enough.

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion performs at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (May 5 and 6) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $45 to $105. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.org.

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